"Meditators at Work"
April 21, 2020
[The original essay can be found at: dhammatalks.org or on this site here.]
In this essay Bhante Thanissaro argues that it is a mistake (that some are making) to conceptualize the method as being one where there is no need for taking action, that is, to think that it requires only 'doing nothing' — The idea that there is nothing one needs to do and that Arahantship arrives on its own in its own good time. This view is approximately the 'theory of non-action' and is a wrong method and is highly criticized by the Buddha.
Seeing the possibility of mistaking this wrong stand as the stand suggested here, I hasten to clarify that 'doing nothing' is not the method suggested here.
The method suggested here strongly emphasizes the idea of 'intentional not-doing' the kamma that ends kamma, in combination with 'letting go', (nekkhamma). The difference is critical.
To my mind, Bhk. Thanissaro's best argument would be Sammā Vāyāma, where the instruction is:
Exercise Self-control. Make effort, exert energy to
1. Restrain low unskillful conditions that have arisen in the here and now
2. Refrain from low unskillful conditions that have not yet arisen
3. Obtain high, skillful conditions that have not yet arisen
4. Retain high, skillful conditions that have arisen.'
It is certainly to be experienced in many cases (where one is trying to break a bad habit for example) that a real struggle, and plotting how, and motivation to attain, etc. (upadāna leading to saṅkhāra-ing), is involved in getting rid of unskillful states, but I maintain that this is preliminary work and though such action will, as Bhk. Thanissaro admits, not bring one to the desired end, it will bring one to the point where that end is attainable.
And how attainable?
Through intentional not-doing and letting go.
So though the apparent reality is that there is action needed, that action cannot be said to be 'action causing the realization of the goal'. But the end result is that the appearance dictates the need to describe the method as being one that involves both doing and not-doing. But since the 'doing' involved is the intent to end unskillful states, and to bring about skillful states, for a clear shot at the task of ending kamma, ending rebirth, ending, it would be better to look into the details of what Sammā Vāyāma is talking about when it speaks of 'good states'; that is, the absence of, letting go of, and non-arising of bad states.
So from one point of view the method is surely an effort to get, and from another it is just letting go, but the principle (sankappa) involved being leaving behind (nekkhamma) the method must at least place emphasis on the negatives 'intentional not doing' and 'intentional leaving behind' as being causally associated with attaining the goal, while not denying that 'doing to get' may be necessary or unavoidable conceptualizations ... for some — not all: if you can see that all your struggles to 'do,' to get states that are the absense of states, when successful, is not really a 'doing' (saṅkhāra), there is no need.
I have in several places illustrated this method by the exercise of clenching the fist and then releasing the tension. The releasing of the tension is 'intentional not doing' it is not 'doing nothing' which would not release the tension, and it is not 'doing' the releasing, it is stopping the doing of the clenching. That is the whole story right there. Its a 'field-ground' situation.
This is an issue which is closely bound up in one's understanding of the goal - in the beginning (when still oriented to a world where 'getting' is the learned standard) it looks like getting and there is no sense making an issue of the issue (especially since the Buddha does state the issue in the two-sided way) until there has been some development of insight and experience and understanding of the deep meaning of 'ending dukkha'.
If the goal is some worldly release, such as, (just to pick a random example), getting rid of stress, then worldly methods will serve. At a more mature stage where anything smacking of worldly ambitions is to be avoided, some subtlety of perception will be required.
If the conceptualization of the goal is associated with a method that involves getting, then the thing got will be a thing got, and things that are got are constructed (sankhara) and have become (bhava) and that which has been constructed and has become, comes to an end. Not what we are after!
A wrongly conceptualized idea of the goal, such as would make it a 'thing' that has 'become' (e.g., a bodhi mind, or an awakened mind that is sitting out there waiting for you to wake up to it), will be seen as attainable through 'doing to get.' A conceptualization of the goal as being apart from existence and beyond kamma will admit to the need for a great deal of preparatory 'doing' and that this is 'doing to get' is not disputed, but for the move from getting next-door to the door, to passing passed the door requires intentional not-doing and letting go.
This danger is avoided conceptualizing the goal as being that which is left when everything that is not it is got rid of. This comports with the method described in Samma Ajiva where we hear that one is to:
Make a lifestyle out of identifying those elements of your personality that are contra-indicated, low, unskillful, un-Aristocratic, profitless, and dumping them. What remains is High Lifestyle.
'Dumping' stands for 'intentional not doing' and 'letting go'; we acknowledge that 'what remains' might appear to involve 'doing to get' skillful states in preparation for letting go and therefore must be acknowledged in a faultless description of the method. Its our 'style' and it is High Style, but it is not yet the goal until all doing to get has been dumped.
 Bhk. Thanissaro implies that there is 'doing' involved in reaching the jhānas. He suggests that the similes indicate doing in their instruction to 'soak, permeate, suffuse and saturate' this body with the state of jhāna achieved. He suggests this is an active 'doing to get'. I suggest that this soaking, etc. is a matter of repeated lettings go of the unskillful states that disturb it. It is a matter of attitude, or orientation. But if you conceptualize what you are doing as 'getting' you 'get' and as stated above when you get, what you have got has become and is subject to ending whereas if you conceptualize the same phenomena as letting go of one state (the clenched fist) to find consciousness located in another state (the same fist released from the clenching) that state has not been one that has been constructed (saṅkhāra-ed), has not been 'got' in the sense of being the result of 'doing' nor is the result 'one's own', and this fits the goal.